Peter LaMotte, Senior Vice President, LEVICK
“Transparency” is a buzzword that’s tossed around a lot, but how many CEOs and business owners truly understand what the concept entails (and support it)? To some, it means offering somewhat more information during a crisis, while maintaining a tight rein on what’s actually shared with investors, the media and the public at large.
But genuine transparency involves providing access to information people want or need, not what feels “right” to the business itself.
Gone are the days when CEOs or other high-level executives might smooth over the facts of a crisis or offer carefully selected bits of information, rather than the whole story, and expect the problem to just go away. In an era of all-encompassing, 24/7 news coverage — combined with the seemingly infinite reach of social media — a business seen to be actively dodging its own pledge of transparency can create a crisis of confidence as bad as the original triggering event itself.
And once a company’s reputation is damaged, it’s exceedingly difficult to rebuild consumer trust. The stakes may be even higher for B2B companies, where a product malfunction, delay in delivery or some related crisis may result in putting “high-dollar contracts at risk and strategic relationships in jeopardy,” says Allison Rice on SocialMediaB2B.com, “and these threats can shake an organization to its core.”
So what actions should businesses take to provide transparency during a crisis in ways that preserve proprietary information yet still give their different audiences the information they need?
Commit to rapid response. In the event of a company crisis, your options are clear-cut: (1) Respond quickly and honestly, thus enhancing public perceptions that you are addressing the situation; or (2) ignore the issue or hope it will go away on its own, potentially increasing the number of alienated customers.
The first option, particularly with respect to social media, is far preferable to allowing an explosion of negative Twitter activity you can’t control or influence.
Share information across all platforms. Depending on the type of crisis, you may receive complaints or feedback from individual customers, in addition to media inquiries. Keep your responses informative but free of emotion (no defensiveness) and remember that everything you put out on social media are essentially public statements which users will share as they like.
Also, establish and stick to a schedule of regular social media updates, so people have confidence you’re addressing the problem and working to resolve it.
Acknowledge your mistakes. History demonstrates, time and again, that attempted cover-ups are often as bad as (or worse than) the initial misdeed. For CEOs and business owners, the lesson is that acknowledging a mistake and owning up to it buys you more good will than becoming defensive or pointing a finger of blame elsewhere.
“Showing that you can learn from your mistakes, rather than dishing out punishment or burying the issue under the carpet, encourages a feeling that you care, whereas covering it up creates an environment of mistrust,” notes business blogger Derek Jones.
Guide employees in being transparent (but not reckless). In the event of a crisis, the CEO and his or her executive team must consider the company’s employees as another constituency to respect and inform. Employees are active on social media, so prepping them on your rapid response and efforts at transparency give them an idea about what’s appropriate to share with their own networks (and what’s not).
Prepare for transparency. Set clear guidelines on how and when to respond when a crisis occurs. Articulate within your communications team just how much information can and should be disclosed, depending on the situation. Transparency doesn’t require businesses to air all of their “dirty laundry” (or anything else the legal department opposes), but to focus instead on understanding how to address an issue quickly and share all relevant information.
Maintaining transparency during a crisis isn’t easy, but damage to your brand can be offset or minimized by adopting an open and accountable policy — which can actually improve public perception in the long run.
About the Author
Peter LaMotte is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and Chair of the firm’s Digital Communications Practice. He also contributes to LEVICK Daily, where it writes about online reputation management and social media marking.